The pledges made by ministers in their keenly awaited rape review must lead to immediate and tightly focused action, enabled by sufficient funding. The current picture with regard to the criminal justice system’s handling of rape is a disaster, of which ministers have rightly said that they are ashamed. Of 52,210 rapes recorded in 2020, just 843 resulted in a charge or a summons. Emily Hunt, an independent adviser to the review and a victim of a sexual offence herself, sums up the situation accurately in saying that rape victims are “nearly always” failed.
Some of the reasons for this are, as the review recognises, complex. These include a chronic failure to reckon with the digital environment and the vast information trails it creates. Others are pretty straightforward, notably the destructive impact of austerity. Prosecuting rape and other sexual offences is acknowledged by all to be difficult. The disbanding of specialist teams in police forces had predictably harmful effects. Chaos in the courts system leading to delays, and a lack of victim support, have also contributed to a collapse in confidence: the proportion of complainants dropping out of cases rose from 25% to 43% in five years.
The data supports the idea that a change in policy at the Crown Prosecution Service contributed to the sharp fall in the number of cases getting to court. The Centre for Women’s Justice argued in a legal challenge that the charging threshold was raised with the aim of achieving a higher proportion of convictions. In March, the court of appeal ruled that the CPS’s actions were legal. The review does not question that. But the number of reported rapes almost doubled in the four years to 2019/20 (though the overall prevalence of rape appears stable, at around 128,000 annually in England and Wales) and the number of prosecutions has fallen precipitously, from 5,190 in 2016/17 to 2,102 in 2019/20. Meanwhile, the conviction rate increased from 56.9% in 2015 to 63.5% in 2019.
Given this backdrop and the fear that it gives rise to, that the crime of rape has effectively been decriminalised, the government’s promise to implement a “conscious reversal” could not be anything but welcome. The goal of returning the level of prosecutions to that of 2016/17 is clear and sound. Recognition of the need for cooperation between police and the CPS is sensible. Acknowledgment of the harm caused by “digital strip searches” of complainants is overdue. Greater emphasis should, as the review says, be placed on the behaviour of the accused.
Questions arise when it comes to how any of this will be made to happen. So far, funding for new CPS-police joint working is limited to £3.2m for a pilot. Plans to improve victim support are closely tied to criminal justice, when strong, standalone organisations, including specialist services for minorities, are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, proposals from the women’s sector, such as the commissioning of research into possible alternatives to jury trials in rape cases, have been rejected. Nor is it clear how confidence in the police themselves is to be raised, at a time when there is growing evidence of abuse carried out by officers themselves.
The government’s frank admission of failure is praiseworthy. But promises to turn over a new leaf are never enough. Abused women and the organisations that work with them know this better than most.